Tswalu Kalahari: Stories

Located in Kalahari, South Africa

The Plight of the Pangolin

By Alena Hadley


While on safari at the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, your wildlife-viewing wish list might read something like this: rhino, cheetah, lion, giraffe, pangolin. In this lineup of iconic bush animals and elusive cats, the small and scaly pangolin might seem out of place. But with their numbers rapidly declining and Tswalu being one of the best places in the world to spot them, guests at the Tswalu Kalahari lodge are eager to catch a glimpse of this rare and unique creature.

Found in parts of Africa and Asia, Pangolins resemble aardvarks or anteaters but are covered in an armor of overlapping keratin plates, making them the only known mammal whose bodies are protected by scales rather than fur. When threatened, the pangolin rolls up into a hard, protective ball that is highly effective in staving off predators—with the exception of poachers, whose impact on the species has been profound.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, with a staggering one million animals having been poached and traded over the past decade. The demand for pangolins is high in parts of Africa, and also in some Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, where people consider their meat a delicacy and their scales essential for certain traditional medicines. As transportation methods advance and human populations increase, escalating domestic and international trade jeopardize the eight existing pangolin species, all of which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These animals suffer even further losses due to habitat destruction, electrified fences, and road mortalities.

Scientists and researchers at the newly launched African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) are seeking solutions to the plight of the pangolin, striving toward the protection and conservation of this threatened mammal. The group is sponsoring several active research projects, developing public awareness campaigns, and forming conservation partnerships with relevant stakeholders.

One such partnership is with the Tswalu Kalahari Foundation and lodge—a natural relationship due to the prevalence of one species—called the Temminck’s ground pangolin—on the reserve. Tswalu works closely with APWG researchers, supplying them with samples for studies on genetic diversity and regional genetic patterns in pangolins. The reserve keeps track of sightings to assist in the mapping of pangolin distributions, while also examining factors that govern that distribution—knowledge that directly informs pangolin conservation strategies. Tswalu is also confronting local threats to the animal head-on. The reserve recently hosted a competition to design a pangolin-friendly electric fence, and the winning design is currently being tested on the property.

Additional research initiatives being conducted by the APWG are diverse, with studies on mapping, genetics, traditional uses of pangolins within local cultures, and the prevalence of the animal on the black markets, which help determine the demand for the species and the magnitude of the trade. This multi-faceted approach is unprecedented for an animal that had largely been overlooked by the research community due to their low population densities and predominantly nocturnal habits. It comes at a critical time, when the pangolin’s current rate of mortality is thought to far exceed its reproductive potential.

To find out more about pangolins, check out their feature in a Nat Geo Wild World’s Weirdest video, and read a series of posts from the International League of Conservation Photographers on the National Geographic Voices blog (linked below).

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